KISMAYU, Somalia, Jan 1 (Reuters) Somali Islamists fled overnight from their final stronghold around the southern port town of Kismayu in the face of an advancing force of Ethiopian and government soldiers, residents said today.
''The Islamic courts left Kismayu last night. They left (their front line at) Jilib as well,'' a Kismayu resident told Reuters.
''Nobody knows where they went. There's a lot of confusion.'' ''Fighting stopped at around 0030 hrs,'' a resident of nearby Jilib said. ''Then there was big silence. Then the Islamic Courts just left.'' The besieged Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) had rallied several thousand fighters at Jilib, just north of Kismayu on the shores of the Indian Ocean, after a retreat south 300 km from the capital Mogadishu.
Somali government forces and their Ethiopian allies had rained down mortars and rockets on the Islamist fighters dug in near Kismayu on Sunday to start a battle against the Islamists.
Fearing a blood-bath, residents ran for their lives, carrying blankets, food and water on their heads.
Jilib lies about 45 km north of Kismayu, where senior Islamist leaders Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed are based.
The intervention of Ethiopia has reversed the fortunes of the government and the hardline religious SICC, which just two weeks ago controlled the capital and appeared on the verge of routing a weak interim government stranded in a provincial town.
Now the government has control of Mogadishu and the Islamists -- without tanks or planes -- are fighting with their backs to the sea and Somalia's southern border with Kenya. Thirds of the population in Jilib have fled the town ... nearly 4,700 have fled,'' aid worker Osman Mohamed said.
The Islamists have built trenches with bulldozers and have more than 60 ''technicals'' -- pickups mounted with heavy weapons -- supporting some 3,000 fighters, witnesses say.
Kenya has reinforced its northern border and US forces are also said to be in the region, including the sea, to prevent foreign militants aligned with the Islamists from escaping.
Ethiopia says it has 4,000 troops in Somalia, though many believe that number could be far higher.
Somalia's government has not given troop numbers, but is thought by experts to have several thousand.
REUTERS AKJ BD1038